Understanding your Client’s SEO Landscape: Competitor Analysis 2.0

Competitor analysis has for some time now been one of those techniques that many SEOs avoid and those who do practice it tend to keep it quiet. It has connotations of cheating and not doing ‘real SEO’ – just replicating what your competitors have achieved for your own gain.

Historically, I’ve mostly looked at competitor keywords to see what they are optimising for and their backinks to see if there are any nuggets that I can pick up for my client while looking at other areas to ensure I can do better than their competitors.

Looking for the golden nugget hiding in a mass of generic backlinks has rarely been fruitful – SEO directories, blog comments, social bookmarks… it can be pretty dire filtering through up to 90% of links that have already been disavowed.

But it doesn’t have to stop at their links or their keywords.

It’s About the Landscape

It’s becoming much more obvious that when it comes to SEO what works for one industry won’t always work for another. With Google now tackling spam in specific industries (payday loans update) it’s even more important now to see what is working within your (or your client’s) industry as a starting point, and that’s what I want to look at with my competitor analysis two-point-zero. What the landscape looks like.

Let’s Dig… Real Deep

My role has recently pushed me into really digging as to why certain sites may not be ranking and some of the things I’ve been looking at is how we stack up against the top 20 ranking competing sites across anything I can draw a comparison on including:

  • Quantity of external links broken down by page authority and domain authority
  • Anchor text breakdown (branded, semi-branded, keyword, synonym, random/other)
  • Number of linking root domains vs overall links
  • Percentage of all links that are followed vs nofollowed
  • Percentage of all links that use brand-heavy vs keyword-heavy anchor text
  • The type of page that consistently ranks well – homepage or internal page
  • Usage of keyword and close synonyms with the page title, heading tags and content
  • Number of internal links that point to ranking page against other pages
  • Usage of anchor text in internal links to ranking page against other pages
  • Distribution and grouping of keywords throughout site
  • Page authority of the ranking page and overall page and domain authority for homepage
  • Readability scores
  • Topic relevancy scores

All of this will be analysed for my client site and compared directly with the same information for up to 20 competing sites that rank better than my client.

I performed this analysis for both the ranking page as well as the root domain so I can draw some real conclusions as to what’s helping them rank and potentially holding my client back from ranking.

I did say we’d dig.

Luckily I’d managed to automate much of this work but it’s still pretty intense.

The Devil is in the Detail

The point of going into this much detail is so you get a deep understanding of what is working within the industry and what the landscape looks like. It helps you understand why some sites rank in much more detail and why you may not.

It’s too easy to say ‘the onsite SEO looks good so we need more equity’. In many industries that isn’t the case. In many industries there aren’t enough high quality sites to gain the kind of equity you’d normally feel you need in order to rank. In some industries nobody has equity – so should your strategy be building equity? Probably not.

You’d be better looking elsewhere. Look at what IS helping sites rank.

Learn… but Don’t Copy

Look at the payday loans industry before the penalty hit. It was super spammy. Everybody who ranked was building spammy links. And it worked.

Because everybody was being spammy it was assumed (algorithmically) by Google as being a natural trait of that industry, more so than any other industry. If you wanted to compete on page 1 for key phrases within that industry you had to join them in their tactics.

Compare that scenario to, say, the engineering industry or the trade industry. Or tunnelling. If you started aggressively building links en mass to a site within one of these industries your success will be short-lived. It will stand out and become a direct target for the next Penguin iteration or algorithm update.

In doing such a deep analysis you still need to apply a lot of common sense.

If you did have a site within the payday loans industry and you did replicate what the top 20 ranking sites were doing you likely burned as a result. If you did steer clear from the dark side and listened to Matt Cutts and survived the update you may well have seen your rankings jump overnight as everybody else bottomed out. Who knows, you may have even ranked on page 1. Maybe.

If you can maintain reasonable levels of common sense – and you manage to keep the devils of temptation from the dark side at bay and avoid upsetting Matt – what you will get is a deeper learning of what works within your client’s industry and how you can fit into the current landscape.

You’ll get real, actionable direction and a solid evidence-based strategy to help you fit more easily within the landscape and compete more successfully within the industry not only with links but with the content, the onsite SEO and the spread of your keywords.

Blend that with some of the techniques you’d usually employ over and above what your competitors. Drop in a few links and mentions that only your client can gain from their position within the industry and you’ll be onto a strategy that not only is a winner but also cannot be replicated and you can see yourself securing that page 1 position for the long term.